One street, twice the pain

High schools: The lives of two longtime friends have meshed in a nearly unbelievable, heart-rending way in Ellicott City.

High Schools

January 27, 2001|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

No one would think that one teen-age tragedy, much less two, could happen here.

Michaels Way, a connector road in the Valley Meade neighborhood of Ellicott City, winds through well-spaced, mostly brick-front, ranch and split-level-style homes.

Frequent speed bumps and a wide median strip combine to produce an orderly, peaceful environment - the ideal place for raising children.

But for two families along this road, life has taken an agonizing turn.

Mount Hebron athletes Jimmy Cooke and Brian Drnec share something neither one could ever have expected - paralysis from the waist down and expected life in a wheelchair.

Friends since kindergarten, teammates on youth league and state-champion high school sports teams, and neighbors whose houses sit 100 yards apart, the two seniors suffered their crippling injuries in separate incidents within a 13-month period.

Cooke, who played soccer and lacrosse for Mount Hebron, severed his lower spinal cord Tuesday while performing a daredevil shenanigan with some friends - jumping from the roof of a neighbor's sun room into the snow, said Jimmy's father, Dr. Kevin Cooke.

Today, Jimmy remains paralyzed from the waist down at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, and awaits transfer to Kernan Medical Center for rehabilitation.

"He hasn't made progress since the [Tuesday] operation," said Dr. Carnell Cooper yesterday. "How much if any motor activity he'll get back is unclear. But because of the severity, it makes it difficult to believe he'll ever walk again."

Jimmy's father, an emergency room physician at Howard County General Hospital, said late Thursday night: "This morning is the first time Jimmy realized what he's up against. He's definitely paralyzed now.

"The trauma surgeon took us aside and told us the odds are not favorable. They had him sitting up today. He's in good spirits and in great hands. This place does a superb job."

There has been a constant flow of visitors at Shock Trauma since the surgery. Last night, Jimmy received four or five visitors at a time, while 25-30 others were in the waiting room.

He said he was looking forward to moving to Kernan, watching the Super Bowl there with friends and getting back to school. He was particulary thankful for Drnec's presence.

"I'm very thankful for all that Brian has done for me," Jimmy said. "It's really nice to have so many friends who care about you."

Drnec, who played soccer and basketball for Mount Hebron, suffered his injury Dec. 9, 1999, in an automobile accident. He was a passenger in a vehicle that turned over several times, ejecting him.

The school and neighborhood rallied around Drnec in an unusually widespread display of unity, including a highly successful fund-raising drive spearheaded by the senior Cooke and two other parents that allowed the Drnec family to recover from the tragedy more quickly than it might have.

Brian is now a senior whose recovery is considered remarkable. He attends school, drives a specially equipped car and can be seen at many Mount Hebron sports contests - always with a smile and a positive word for everyone. He even helps Cooke coach his son Kevin's youth-league basketball team.

Brian spent many hours this past week at Shock Trauma consoling Jimmy and his three younger brothers - Billy, Kevin and Bobby.

"I've known Jimmy forever," Brian said. "He's a really strong kid and will get through everything fine. He was talking and laughing and putting a smile on everyone's face.

"I'll be by his side every step of the way, showing him all the tricks he'll need to know. This brings back memories of stuff that was hard to deal with. But it made me happy to see all the people and how they care for you, and the waiting rooms have been overflowing with people waiting to see him."

The senior Cooke said: "The Drnecs have all been here from the outset. Mike and Ann [Brian's parents] have supported me and Peggy [Cooke's wife]. And Brian has been a great source of comfort to Jimmy and us all with his information and his positive attitude. If we can get Jimmy as far as Brian has come, we'll be happy."

Cooke described his son's accident as some neighborhood kids "goofing around and filming stunts."

He said: "One of the neighborhood kids got a camera for Christmas and they've been filming stunts like stuff they've watched on television. They sent someone down a hill in a shopping cart and filmed that.

"Jimmy's stunt was to jump off this roof that was reachable from a second-story window at a friend's house. When he landed, his legs were fully extended and he was wearing boots that didn't allow his legs to flex. The roof was 12 to 14 feet high and the ground was frozen."

He said Jimmy would be moved to Kernan as soon as a drain from Tuesday night's operation is removed from his back.

The Mount Hebron community is rallying once again in support of a fallen member. "They say there's 40 kids out in the waiting room," Jimmy's father said Thursday. "They're a great bunch of kids in this community."

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